3 Casting Mistakes I’ve Made That Every Director Can Learn From
Caption: Actors Mike Friedman and Annie Cavalero in Bedroom Story, directed by Courtney Daniels.
I like hearing about other people’s screw-ups. I find it really helpful. In that spirit, I’d like to offer up the mistakes I’ve made when casting. Since most independent filmmakers I know are calculated-risk-takers and want to do things their way, I don’t expect you to heed my advice. But here goes.
Mistake #1: HOLDING OUT FOR A STAR WHEN YOU’RE NOT MAKING A CASH OFFER
I’ve DMed stars on Instagram, approached them in comedy clubs, and handed them scripts at health food restaurants. I’ve done it all. What they always tell you is that they can’t accept your script “for legal reasons.” Which I, of course, understand. It’s smart and reasonable.
But even when you go through the proper channels, holding out for a star doesn’t, in my experience, pan out.
For my latest feature, Bedroom Story, I asked a respected casting director if she could help me get a star for the lead female role. I wanted someone around age 50. Since you always hear that there are fewer opportunities for older actresses, and since famous actresses are always saying there should be more women directors, I thought there was a chance we’d attract someone.
The casting director told me that unless I had just recently won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it would be very difficult to get a star. “How difficult?” I said. She said, “Like, peel-your-face-off-the-wall impossible.” I said, “Okay, let’s try.” (Independent filmmakers do not scare easily, right? Right.)
So, I paid the casting director $3,500 (half of her usual fee; she was nice enough to give me a deal). She then sent my script to the agents or managers of seven famous actresses.
Each time she submitted my script, she told the agent or manager the thoughtfully crafted pitch we’d come up with, in hopes of inspiring them to support our quest. After waiting an average of a couple of weeks for each star to read the script, each of the reps told us they were passing on my project.
Yes, it might’ve made a difference if I had made a cash offer. Yes, it’s possible the actresses’ reps discouraged them from working on an independent film or possibly didn’t even tell them about my project, since I hadn’t made a cash offer. But what I learned is you should not delay a project attempting to get stars attached.
Mistake #2: HOLDING OUT FOR THE “PERFECT” UNKNOWN ACTOR
After trying to attach a star to Bedroom Story, I dragged my feet for another year before shooting it because none of the actors who were available to me were “exactly right” for the lead. Specifically, I wanted an actress who was around 50yo.
When I look back, it kills me that I wasted so much time stressing about casting someone who was the “ideal” age. Yes, casting the right person is important. But working with what you have, making your movie, and getting on with your life is important, too.
If you know a great actor and they’re not the “right” age–or they are somehow not exactly what you envisioned for the role–really think about how important your criteria are. Question your assumptions.
I knew my frequent collaborator, Annie Cavalero, was great at both drama and comedy. And I knew she’s a joy to work with. As I thought about her for the role, her young age started to matter less to me.
Even if you have to change your script/story to make it right for your actor, do it. When I finally bit the bullet and revised my script to accommodate Annie’s age, it was a relief and thrill to offer her the role and move forward.
Mistake #3: NOT BEING SPECIFIC ABOUT PROFIT-SHARING
If you offer percentage points to your cast or lead actors, specify that they will get a cut of the profits (i.e., they will not receive a cut of your Filmhub money until after you’ve recouped your production costs). Also consider either capping the amount they’ll receive or putting a limit on the number of years they’ll receive profits (unless your dream is to be everyone’s unpaid accounting bitch, painstakingly adding up long columns of numbers every quarter, year in and year out, until kingdom come).
Instead of giving percentage points, why not give bonus checks–as many as you want, as long as the film continues to make money–to the MVPs from your project. If/when you recoup your investment and after you have paid yourself a fair amount for writing, producing, and directing.
By the end of a project, you know who the pros were, who elevated the work, and who was a dream to work with. And it is a joy to give those special people more money.
Courtney Daniels is the writer-director of What Other Couples Do and Bedroom Story, which you can stream on Tubi, Plex, or IMDb TV. To hear more from her, listen to episode 2 of the Forward Filmmaker podcast.